A life in ballet, particularly at its highest levels, is a ceaseless quest for perfection. The search starts at a very early age, when a youngster will learn how to skip and jump in time to music and be shown how to point a foot just so. As the years progress the student must master the minute, ever-changing relationships between head, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, the torso, hips and lower limbs at any given moment in the dance. How the head must spin and the eyes focus to enable a serene turn. Above all, as the years go by, a dancer must use all these technical skills in the service of something more: a level and quality of artistry unique to the individual that give meaning and insight to a work of art.
Perfection, as any dancer will tell you, is elusive. Nevertheless, it and its close ally, control, are sought and prized.
It takes a special kind of physical and mental toughness to prosper in this world and Mary McKendry had it. She started learning ballet when she was eight, which was rather late given that her first classmates were four or five. In two years she’d caught up to her age group. By the time she was 16 she – a kid from Rockhampton – was accepted into the Royal Ballet School in London.
She then secured a contract with Festival Ballet (later English National Ballet) and within a trice was sharing the stage with Rudolf Nureyev. When Festival Ballet toured to New York she found herself part of a group with Nureyev at the infamous nightclub Studio 54. Heady stuff. She eventually became a principal dancer and, after a while, wanting a challenge and a change, moved to Houston Ballet. Which is where she met and married Li Cunxin, who would later be known around the world through his memoir Mao’s Last Dancer.
Such a trajectory doesn’t happen without a vast amount of drive and energy, qualities that Mary McKendry, now Mary Li, brought to bear on her post-performance life. She had continued to dance after marriage but when she and her husband Li (Australians have always called him by his family name) discovered that their first child, Sophie, was profoundly deaf, Mary made the excruciating decision to leave the stage. She would devote herself to a new goal: for Sophie to be able to speak. “For me signing was the last option,” she writes.
The dedication that drove Mary’s career as a dancer was now redirected towards Sophie’s development but this was new, far more intractable territory. Despite giving the task every bit of passion and perseverance she had, Mary was devastated that after two years there was no improvement in Sophie’s ability to communicate. She wouldn’t give up though. She was still determined that Sophie “would be part of our hearing world”.
The anguish for mother and daughter went on and on. There was a cochlear transplant, much more painstaking work, a roller-coaster of ups and downs and, ultimately, big decisions to make. Mary is unsparingly honest about how fraught the relationship with Sophie became over the years but they got through it somehow, kept afloat by love that never wavered and the strength of their family.
Indeed, Mary’s Last Dance is just as much about the importance of family as it is about a ballet career and the negotiation of a child’s special needs. The early part of the book is a rollicking, evocative read about Mary’s life as one of eight children growing up in Rockhampton in the 1960s and 1970s. Later she becomes close to her husband’s side of the family – Li Cunxin had six siblings – and her insights into his life in China are especially interesting for those who have read Mao’s Last Dancer. And then there is the smaller but no less tight-knit family unit of Mary, Li and their three offspring.
Children grow up, of course, and eventually dance reclaimed Mary Li. She is ballet mistress and principal répétiteur at Queensland Ballet, the company transformed by her husband when he became its artistic director in 2013. She even takes to the stage occasionally in character roles.
Mary’s Last Dance
by Mary Li
Viking, PB, 480pp
Buy online at Booktopia